Have you been to the Iberian Pig in Decatur? Do you love it? Or is it not for you? I’m beginning to think the answer to this question says a lot about what you look for in a dining experience.
Three times this week people have told me how much they love this restaurant. When I ask them what they enjoy about it, they tend to respond globally. “The vibe is great,” or “It’s such a nice surprise.”
Do they love the food? Absolutely, even though one fan failed to recall a single dish from the place. Another loved the meatballs stuffed with dates and peppers. A third mentioned the pork tenderloin (above) in cherry sauce.
Then these people ask me if I’ve been to the Iberian Pig. Yes, I respond noncommittally. But only once, so I don’t know it well at all.
In fact, my wife and I live around the corner from the Iberian Pig. We walked over once for some wine and a few small plates. The vibe was indeed special — cozy but urbane, with lots of warm brick, wood, hipsters in fedoras shaking cocktails, distinctive spaces that made each table seem a prime piece of real estate. The service was enthusiastic and attentive, with tastes of wine offered and detailed descriptions of every dish we asked about. I had the feeling our waitress could personally prepare any dish on the menu if called upon to do so. The food was mostly tasty and amply portioned. Yet we’ve never been back.
Why not? Something about the dim lighting and the saucy exuberance of the cooking conspired for too many “what are we eating” moments. What were those leathery, sweet bits in the salad? Oh right, parsnips. What’s this little crock of sauce served alongside a plate of decent (if not great) serrano ham. Espresso aioli. Seriously?
The meal hit all kinds of taste notes — sweet, spicy, rich, saucy, meaty, crunchy, tender, juicy — but failed to leave a clean impression. As much as we enjoyed our meal at this pleasant, inviting restaurant, we go out for food we can relate to. We wanted more bread with the ham, and no coffee mayonnaise.
Maybe I’m over-analyzing, but I wonder if the Iberian Pig serves as a good litmus test. If you like this restaurant for its generosity of spirit — for the big, warm hug of it all — then maybe you look for certain qualities in your dining experiences. Maybe you’re also less sensitive to competing flavors.
I’d really like to hear from people who go to the Iberian Pig and find out what other places you love. I think it’s an exemplar of a certain kind of dining experience, and your answers may help me do my job better when people come to me for restaurant recommendations.